Home > Communication, Health, Safety > I believe you

I believe you

January 9, 2015

(also an apology)

I believe you.

Those three plain words have stuck with me for two and a half decades.

My younger sister was ten years old when she testified against the family friend who had molested her for three years.

I was not allowed to be present in the courtroom while she testified lest my own testimony be tainted by hers. I, her older sister and should-have-been-protector, watched helpless through a window as she sobbed through her testimony just feet away from the molester.

I hated him then. I hated my inability to comfort my sister. I hated the narrative that turned my mom into the de facto defendant. I hated damn near everything about the trial except those three words.

A law student watching the trial followed my sister out of the courtroom and knelt down in front of her.

I believe you, she said. I believe you.

I have loved her ever since.

I believe you.

Those three plain words were missing from my blog decrying Phylicia Rashad’s “forget those women” response to Cosby’s accusers. They were likewise missing from my comments on the post, which comments haunted me throughout the day.

I’d missed the mark. I knew it. I just couldn’t figure out how. 

I believe you.

The real world is not a tidy academy of feigned neutrality. It is a messy, terrifying, lovely, aching jumble of contradictory inputs and responses, yearnings and learnings, stumbles and hurdles occasionally leaped gracefully.

The real world is one where, according to the U.S. Department of Justice pursuant to its annual National Crime Victimization Survey of 90,000 households,

  • Almost 300,000 victims (age 12 or older) are raped and sexually assaulted each year
  • The “offender was known to the victim in about 80%” of such assaults
  • An average of 68% of sexual assaults are not reported
  • Only 3% of rape cases are referred to prosecutors
  • 2% of rapists spend even one day in prison

There is nothing tidy or academic about these numbers. They reflect the heartbreaking truth that, while hundreds of thousands of American lives are brutalized by sexual assault annually, only a few thousand perpetrators will even be tried.

I believe you.

Some accusers do lie. But I believe you. Because here’s the thing: most accusers do not lie.

Kimberly A. Lonsway, Sgt. Joanne Archambault and Dr. David Lisak assessed this with great nuance here, concluding that the “realistic and evidence-based estimate of 2-8% [of false reports of sexual abuse] thus suggests that the American public dramatically overestimates the percentage of sexual assault reports that are false.”

They continue:

It’s probably not hard to imagine why. For example, we have all seen how victims are portrayed in the media accounts of rape accusations made against popular sports and cultural figures. These media accounts show us just how easy it is for us a society to believe the suspect’s statements (a respected cultural icon) and both discount the victim’s statements and disparage her character.

In ten pages of tight, succinctly expressed analysis I couldn’t begin to summarize justly, they explain that few sexual assaults match the stereotype of a “real rape” and that, unfortunately, it’s only the rare stereotypic “real rapes” that tend to be prosecuted. What’s a “real rape,” anyway? It matches most/all of the below characteristics:

  • Perpetrated by a stranger using a weapon
  • Reported immediately by a hysterical victim who exercised no poor judgment
  • All details are perfectly consistent no matter how hysterical the victim, how many times she’s questioned and who does the questioning
  • The suspect seems like a rapist

Unlike these “real rapes,” data reveals, real rape and sexual assault is much more often than not perpetrated by friends and acquaintances. Victims often don’t physically resist, for reasons ranging from confusion, surprise, shock, dissociation and self blame to fear they might be killed for resisting. They come forward reluctantly days, weeks, months or years after being assaulted, again for a range of understandable reasons. Weapons and serious physical, non-sexual violence are uncommon. Accounts might vary between tellings due to trauma, cultural beliefs, discomfort recalling or revealing certain brutal details, and other factors. The perpetrator doesn’t really strike people as the raping type.

So in this not-textbook world, we measure real sexual assault against an unreal, stereotypic standard and dismiss that which deviates too far from our understandings of “real rape” to be valid. We take women already violated in ways they will spend years trying to recover from and violate them again with our seemingly neutral but loaded to bursting questions.

Why did you wear that? Why did you go out at night? Why did you go out alone? Why didn’t you fight back? Why did you wait so long to report?

What did you do wrong enough for us to discount you?

I believe you.

You might not have felt it based on my academic reflections yesterday.

Sure, one woman could lie. Ten women could lie. Twenty women could lie.

But that’s the academic bullshit of an armchair spectator. I will not be among those who insist neutrality is believing it’s 50/50 you’re lying on a scale tipped so dramatically against you, when only a small handful lie. I will not be among those who make you wonder if you’re crazy, weak or in any way deserving of assault.

I feel for those falsely accused, but do so emphasizing their agony is a footnote in the shadow of tomes of overwhelmingly more prevalent sexual assault. One crime reflects the personal moral failures of a handful of false accusers; the other, systemic injustice we on the outside help perpetrate from our armchairs every time we say or imply that you’re likely just another liar with her own agenda.

I believe you.

It’s not my job to adjudicate. In any case, I’m not interested in weighing his guilt, threatening or cursing him. That doesn’t change anything–not for the better, anyway.

In fact, I believe focusing so keenly on all the details of any one him, speculating about him or castigating him hurts not only you but all of us. We blind ourselves to the whole picture because it’s easier to speculate on one lurid detail: one him. We’re so busy ogling the accident on the roadside, we don’t see the crumbling bridge ahead of us. Nothing gets changed that way because we can’t change something that’s already happened.

I’d like us to stop talking about any one him and start talking instead about how to help you. How to lift you up in healing. How to let you know we are here for you, listening to you, believing you.

I’d rather focus on building than destroying.

The sooner we can learn to give our all to lifting you up instead of wasting life tearing him down, the closer we will be to a gentler world worthy of your light.

I believe you.

  1. January 10, 2015 at 12:25 am

    Reblogged this on Wings I Wrote and commented:
    One of the most powerful articles, I have ever read on Sexual Assault and Humanity.
    I believe you. Period.

  2. nicciattfield
    January 10, 2015 at 1:09 am

    So painful. I think we do need to validate stories of abuse and rape, and we also need to work at how to make communties responsible for looking after women, rather than making women responsible for what happened to them.

    I get how ‘real’ rape is so different. I remember listening to a 15 year old who stayed over with a friend, told her brother a clear no, and then hated herself for talking to him the next morning. Not all women fight, but the self blame can hurt too. It’s all devastating.

    • January 10, 2015 at 5:24 am

      Which “we” do you mean? Please be very specific as you assess this question, hopefully with heavy reference to the 10-page study, which contains crucial and varied insights I could not fit here geared directly toward enabling prosecutors/law enforcement to more appropriately and consistently in accord with best practices handle accusations of rape or sexual assault. Note that, while I will be happy to continue “validation” discussion in email, I will not continue it here. Doing so–like this very comment I’m typing–takes me from the discourse I want to have and back toward culturally preferred discourse of blame and validation. I want those reading this post to see my belief and sink in the safety of hearing those crucial words: I believe you. Someone believes you. There is more than disbelief out there.

      If by “we” you mean the people tasked with actually examining and/or adjudicating any particular case, then yes, they should weigh each case as directed while (i) being mindful of their own biases, which are overwhelmingly against accusers, and (ii) follow best practice recommendations for handling that assessment. Any other “we,” not so much. “We” need to get the hell out of making offerings of support contingent on each and every one of us confirming each fact in each case, which (a) leaves victims woefully unsupported and (b) is quite literally someone else’s job. We need to do this mindful of how, with our very specific cultural history of disbelief and victim blaming, we re-victimize the majority of women accusing (who were actually assaulted) and send loud signal to all those achingly deliberating whether to come forward that we’ll do the same for them.

      “We” should get out of the business of the blame game altogether. Do I think Cosby is guilty? Sure. Do I think Allen is guilty? I strongly suspect it. Do I really give a damn about my own assessment of their guilt? Yours? Joe Public’s? No, because it’s meaningless. It changes nothing. I am not an adjudicator of guilt. It’s not my job to penalize the accused, and I don’t want it to be. I do not take that job. I want to give no more than a couple second’s consideration to my own personal conclusions, lending my full heart to engaging with the accusers, erring on the side of believing them without getting sidetracked by ogling the accused, castigating him, or the very kind of conversation we’re having here, where neutral “validation” is anything but neutral in the actual, specific, historical, non-academic context of how sexual assault has been handled in this country.

      I agree with most of Young’s conclusion in this piece:

      “Our focus on getting justice for women who are sexually assaulted is necessary and right. We are still far from the day when every woman who makes a rape accusation gets a proper police investigation and a fair hearing. But seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. In practical terms, that means finding ways to show support for victims of sexual violence without equating accusation and guilt, and recognizing that the wrongly accused are real victims too.”

      I will not restate my exception to her conclusion as it was in the post itself. And I include one final quote (from this piece, which expresses the contextual concern I most want to see addressed for real, lasting change in how we respond to accusers:

      “By loudly disbelieving Cosby’s accusers, no matter how unlikely it is that they are all lying, we are telling the survivors in our own lives, that we don’t believe them either.”

      That’s exactly what we’re doing, even though the vast majority of accusers speak the truth … if they speak it at all, having seen how accusers are treated on personal, local and national levels.

      The thing is that I want Cosby’s name omitted and replaced with “his.” I want to talk about the patterns, not the isolated instances. I want to change how we hear, change from attacking anyone–accused or accuser–from our armchairs and instead to supporting. My goal is healing, not condemning.

      When I say “I believe you” here, the “you” is every woman who reads commentary like my own on my last post with sinking heart, and then chooses silence over possible revictimization. That “I believe you” is for every woman who’s come forward despite disbelief and scorn, often even from friends and family, and those who haven’t come forward because–like the 80% of college students who choose not to report–they rightly fear they will be. It’s for those weeping, not pondering academically, in their armchairs.

      This space is for them.

      • nicciattfield
        January 10, 2015 at 6:24 am

        It’s important that the space is for them. Deborah, I sent you an email. Thanks for letting me know I could.

        • January 10, 2015 at 6:39 am

          We actually emailed each other at almost exactly the same moment! Apologies again for replying to a body of commentary instead of your actual comment, to which a simple question (“What do you mean?”) would have sufficed.

          There are few I trust more than you to operate from a place of compassion and furthering healing. You do so much more capably than me. Your blog and your thoughtful comments are a balm in this messy, often hurtful world.

          Thank you.

          • nicciattfield
            January 10, 2015 at 6:40 am

            Yours too, Deborah. We learn from each other.

  3. January 10, 2015 at 1:15 am

    I believe them too. They knew they were going into a firestorm. How is your sister? That has to have helped her tremendously!

    • January 10, 2015 at 5:27 am

      My “you” was meant to be more expansive, actually; offered up for every “you” who reads this having potentially never heard those healing words.

      My sister actually commented on the Phylicia post. If you read comments by “The Rambler,” you’ll see her wings. I would love others to see her wings and find their own.

  4. January 10, 2015 at 1:22 am

    Reblogged on Nutsrok

  5. January 10, 2015 at 1:22 am

    Reblogged this on Nutsrok and commented:
    Provocative post from Monster in Your Closet

  6. Bliss
    January 10, 2015 at 1:32 am

    Reblogged this on BLISS and commented:
    ‘We’re so busy ogling the accident on the roadside we don’t see the crumbling bridge ahead.’

    This article is so powerful I had to share it. It speaks of things I have always thought of saying but I couldn’t find the right words, and articulates why ‘witch-hunts’ which have become so common nowadays do nothing to alleviate the problem, or even ease the pain.

  7. January 10, 2015 at 2:20 am

    Someone once said to me that it was a terrible thing how many abuse cases were occurring now. My reply was that there are more being reported today and this has been going on for years, decades, it was just not spoken of.
    ‘I Believe You’, a strong post and you have my full support.
    I am not a victim, but foster kids in my care were. What sickened me most were mothers who knew what was going on, went into denial by blaming the child and did nothing.

    • January 10, 2015 at 5:45 am

      “it was just not spoken of” is right. Statistics actually bear out a dramatic decrease in abuse cases. Per RAINN, which calls on the same national survey I referenced in my post, “Sexual assault has fallen by more than 50% in recent years.” This almost 300,000 annually is the “better than.” Marvel at that.

      I’ve talked to so many women about their experiences. Far fewer and further between are those who ever heard words like “I believe you” than those who heard terrible things like “you filthy liar” and “what did you do to provoke him?” At first I couldn’t believe someone would disbelieve. Now I understand my mom was the rarity; the one willing to accept terrible truth to stop it cold instead of disregard it to maintain false but cozy comfort.

      Have you read Gavin de Becker’s Protecting the Gift? It’s an amazing resource for those tasked with protecting children. One of his comments is how those who are disbelieved suffer enduringly, whereas those who are believed and allowed to heal with full, non-accusatory support/advocacy by their caretakers go on to thrive. I am heartened that you are there to say “I believe you.”

  8. terrikurczewski
    January 10, 2015 at 3:52 am

    Beautiful and beatuifully written.

    • January 10, 2015 at 5:47 am

      Thank you. ♥

      I know I’ll be able to express myself more clearly and with better focus on one or two core points in the future, but … I won’t get there without here.

  9. January 10, 2015 at 4:57 am

    I have seen the effects of similar pattern of abuse of a one-time partner and her sister over many years, was possibly the first outside the family to learn of it and perhaps the first to believe it. The effects of this sort of evil behaviour touch everyone that comes close to it but that is nothing to what the victims suffer, not just at the hands of the abuser but in everything that follows in their lives, especially when it is aired and not believed.
    For me, to imagine the hurt of that child, to imagine how it must feel to be humiliated and called a liar when speaking out, it is utterly heartbreaking and has affected my life ever since.

    What a powerful post that deserves wider reading and what a powerful headline message.

  10. January 10, 2015 at 5:34 am

    You made it clear that you are supporting all those who make the difficult decision to report. Every report helps the next person.

    • January 10, 2015 at 5:53 am

      Ah, thank you for confirming! Past experience has shown any mention of one case often draws focus to that case instead of patterns. At first I thought this was because I wasn’t expressing myself clearly, but now–thanks to confirmation like yours–I see it can also be due to discourse outside this blog.

  11. marilynmunrow
    January 10, 2015 at 6:26 am

    I love your blog, this is enlightening, strong and powerful. I know how it is to not be believed, been there, done it. It is the most exhilarating thing in the word to hear. “I BELIEVE YOU” This enables you to go forward and to encourage others that it is worth persuing a sexual assault case, as somebody will always believe you. Well done, i cried when i first read this blog honey. You are a very brave person, as is your sister too.

    • January 11, 2015 at 1:05 pm

      Thank you so much! I am so sorry you have also had to endure this terrible disbelieving. I believe you, and will forever remain grateful to that law student … who could have said nothing, but changed my life with the only words I remember clearly from that ordeal. So much sadness, so much anger, and through it, so much love and courage from three “little” words.

  12. marilynmunrow
    January 10, 2015 at 6:27 am

    Reblogged this on Marilyn Munrow and commented:
    Powerful, strong and exhilarating to know that at the end of the day. somebody always will “BELIEVE”.

  13. marilynmunrow
    January 10, 2015 at 6:29 am

    Reblogged this on Marilyn Munrow.

  14. Hina
    January 10, 2015 at 6:54 am

    Its truth! We have to help who went through this but then there is society! In here almost no rape case is reported because it will cause disrespect to victim’s family! The assaulter would be roaming free in streets without any guilt.That’s what i hate about how my society works!

    • January 11, 2015 at 1:10 pm

      Your words inspire such sadness! When rape goes unreported, rapists are free to continue assaulting. But how can we expect people to report rape when they are so often penalized/ostracized for doing so? It is a vicious, hurtful cycle that practically encourages assault.

  15. Denise DuFresne
    January 10, 2015 at 8:36 am

    Wonderful post, thank you for it. I know the weight of this – a step-uncle (I don’t know what else to call him) tried to molest my sister, who was fast thinking enough to stop him by throwing soda in his face. The real tragedy was after, when she told my father and his wife what happened. They didn’t believe her and punished her for it. I was 15, she was 12. Later that evening, after she was forced to apologize, I told her would be attacker to never come near us again, that I believed her and that I would make absolutely sure he never got near anyone else again if he tried it. I threatened to kill a former soldier that was over a foot taller than me. I don’t know how I said it, or how I looked when I said it, but he took me seriously and now, 31 years later, turns and flees in the opposite direction if he sees me at an event. Of all the things that have happened in our lives, my father not believing my sister that day has been something I can not forgive him for. That betrayal cut deep and it wasn’t even me he was betraying directly. I appreciate your post very much – and I’m following it. Looking forward to reading more.

    • January 11, 2015 at 1:19 pm

      “punished her for it.”

      Even those words make me want to shout at the injustice. Why, why, why is it so hard for people to believe something that happens so, so often must happen elsewhere, to someone else?

      I’m glad you were there to stand by and up for her. I’m sad for everything that was lost by your father not doing so. For, indeed, when someone punishes you for the truth, how can you any longer be open with or trusting of them? How can you not honor the wall put up between you, and find new places to retreat?

      I, too, made such a threat on someone else’s behalf once, and I didn’t make it lightly. It wasn’t received lightly, either, thankfully. It’s part of what prompted me to write a post entitled “Your belief is irrelevant.” Some people won’t hear gentle words, so willingness to use harsher ones enables clearer communication with a broader range of people.

      Safety over someone else’s comfort. Always.

  16. January 10, 2015 at 9:50 am

    Such an awesome article, so socially relevant for a pervasive epidemic. I thing I still have your e-mail, and I’ll fill in the blanks. But suffice to say I heard someone say those same words 5-1/2 years ago to a child… And to her parents.
    I wish I could write more about this because I think – like your writing – it helps people – but I have to defer to the victim.
    God bless you & your family!

  17. January 10, 2015 at 9:50 am

    Okay. I hear you.

    • January 10, 2015 at 9:58 am

      This is about wrapping up my part in several conversations, not any particular one. I felt such a huge sense of unease with what I was saying. This helped me get closer to “why,” though I’m still not all the way there.

      Lucky for me (?), I have a lot of looooong drives ahead of me to ponder a lot of good points made by those around me physically and via internet. Thank you.

      • January 10, 2015 at 10:15 am

        I understand. And while I don’t completely buy your perspective on this, I’m allowing it to shape my own perspectives. I think – and I believe this is, in part, what you’ve been saying – that by the time we get to deciding who is or isn’t guilty, and of what, we’ve already, as a community, missed the boat. We need to find a way to STOP this shit, not pour all our energy into choosing a winner in the battle after the shit has escaped the diaper.

        Is any of these long drives ahead likely to bring you up to the Pacific Northwest? I could probably be persuaded to make a drive myself to meet you, if you’re of a mind to grab some coffee…:)

  18. January 10, 2015 at 11:18 am

    Powerful words. And no healing can ever begin without them being said.

  19. January 10, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    This is so powerful!!! Thank you a thousand times!!!

  20. January 10, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Reblogged this on Art by Rob Goldstein and commented:
    Powerful! and Healing! This may have triggers

  21. January 10, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    Well done!

  22. January 10, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Excellent post. Thank you for writing this and for believing in those who need a caring ear.

  23. January 10, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    I believe them. All of them. All of their imperfect, many-years-later, sometimes-confusing stories.

  24. January 10, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    Powerful words. The media has spent a lot of time focusing on the accused in the Cosby case. Victims, both his and all victims of sexual abuse, need a voice and compassion. Unfortunately, in so many cases, especially those that are reported years later, it becomes a he said/she said case, lacking physical evidence. This has happened in my family. Not everyone said: I believe you. It divided our family.

  25. January 11, 2015 at 8:35 am

    I am struggling not to break down and weep, for love, for victory, for standing up, for your heart and your bravery, for your compassion.

    I hope you do not mind that I link to both this and your previous post. The eloquence of your words, I hope they will temper mine.

  1. January 11, 2015 at 4:31 pm
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